Tag Archives: Eastern Cape

Travelogue Eastern Cape 4: Port Alfred

PORT ALFRED
2-4 Dec 2020

It was our decision to end off in Port Alfred - the closest big dot to the East London airport, from where we would need to depart for home on Friday - that our 'few days in Kenton' became a roadtrip of the Eastern Cape. Port Alfred was just that little bit too far as a homebase from which to satellite to the places we'd earmarked as of interest.

We'd had to make some big decisions and trade-offs to make everything fit, one of the more difficult ones being foregoing staying over in Kenton. We had rationalised that it was the most likely destination we'd return to for a longer stay and so comprised to a drive-through on this trip.

We left a murky Colchester behind and drove through a chilly and drizzly Alexandria to pause in Cannon Rocks to see what there was to see (not much; 2 canons and 2 anchors) and then emerge in a sunny Kenton-on-Sea. Quite a microclimate experience in only 80km!

We parked in town, did a bit of window-shopping (mostly of bakery and restaurant menus; can you ever really be too informed??) and walked down to the beach. Even though it was clear skies with the lightest breeze, the beach was empty. Maybe the inclement weather had been there earlier, maybe it was because it was a weekday and shoulder season or maybe Kenton does lunch or siesta in a big way. 

It was quite nice to have the blue flag beach to ourselves though.
Also nice to have taken the walk rather than drive down. Gave us time for a proper gawk at the big and beautiful holiday homes, choosing which would be ours should our ship come in.

It was then just a short hop (a bit like the Garden Route) to Port Alfred, where we had no trouble finding our accommodation, one road before a massive bridge and one road on from the main road. Even the navigationally-challenged like me could not but help find the place!

Wiltshire cottage is a little granny flat in the garden of the main house, on a road dotted with Wiltshire rental properties. Owned and managed by a lovely couple, we were warmly welcomed, given a tour and some great advice on what to do and see in the neighbourhood.

Not in any rush to go dashing out again, we enjoyed the comfort of our cosy lounge with an episode of The Crown, which had us hooked after the episodes we'd watched in the downtime enjoyed at our Colchester studio.

Sunset saw us taking a wander down to the beach - an easy walk and near impossible to get lost with beaches curling our neighbourhood on two sides - and along the beachfront to seek sundowners at The Highlander pub, opposite the St Andrews Golf Course.

With Prawns as the chef's daily special, sundowners soon turned into a seafood feast, which seemed very fitting for our seaside surrounds.

Always a treat to be able to walk home from dinner and en route we smelled the most delicious aroma wafting from a heavenly restaurant that we resolutely decided would make for the perfect farewell dinner.

With precious little to do on our last day, we started the day with a slow run around the golf course and along the beach. When we got back and were cooling off on our little patio, our host's stopped to chat and gave us both advice on what to do for the day and an invitation to join them for a social in the evening.

Following their advice, we took a little drive down the coast to see the Lighthouse. Even though tours had been cancelled because of the pandemics, it was still possible to drive right up to the lighthouse - and get some great pics from the prime location.

Our host, Roy, had recommended a roadside diner for our lunch. On arrival we found them mid- power failure and apologetic that things were taking longer than usual. We were in absolutely no hurry, so settled in at the beer garden at the back. It was worth the wait and our surf n turf and seafood combo were both excellent (in value and in taste). 

That left time to retreat back to the couch for a few episodes of The Crown before taking Roy up on his invitation to visit his bar in the early evening, while Leanne was hosting her bookclub in the main house.

Popping across the garden with the last of our beers, we were greeted by a tableful of gents, communed for their ritual bi-weekly social. 

Roy had an impressive bar, walls lined with memorabilia that it had clearly taken a lifetime to collect. Beer bottles, Stein's, framed pictures of important event... His flash guided tour didn't do justice to the treasure chest of memories!

Roy also had a private library annexed onto his bar, with an enviable collection of hardcover books that concentrated on biographies and autobiographies; right up Christian's alley so led to an energetic back and forth about which ones were best, which stories were believable and what gaps remained to be told of protagonists who were still alive and making history.

On completing the tour, chairs were added to the table for us and, as cameo guests to this clique, we were faced with the usual set of questions (where we're from, what we do there, what we were doing here and for how long) and then were peppered with appropriate stories in response from group, who were mostly retired to Port Alfred from Joburg, Durban and CT.

They were great company and had it not been our last night, we might have been tempted to stay longer. But alas, it was, so we made a break for it and headed down to the beach for the sunset.

Of course, I'd completely misjudged the directions and so the spot we'd earmarked for sundowners was on the wrong side completely and already well into dusk by the time we got there!

No mind, we still had the restaurant to look forward to and so we made our way over there.

What a gem of a find! Only open 2 months, KC Italia was an intimate eatery with a very focused menu of no more than 8 pasta specials. A good thing too as we still struggled to choose from those limited options! In the end, the coastal theme drew us to the prawns linguine and the salmon tofe (fancy name for shells pasta). 

Able to see into the kitchen through the wide window connected to the dining area, we could see the chef working his magic and creating his masterpieces. It was very up our alley to be able to watch him swirling delicious things in the assortment of pans and scooping our steaming food into bowls, to be picked up immediately and served to us at our table seconds later. 

We had a long and lingering dinner, enjoying every bite of our meal. It was so wonderful I would have licked the bowl if I thought I could get away with it! And I said as much to the chef when he came out to check on us and he beamed, obviously thrilled at the sincere compliment.

His partner, the hostess, spent quite a bit of time chatting to us, excited by their impetuous decision to open the restaurant - post both of them being displaced by Covid closures - and optimistic for their chances for a busy December holiday period. She said that there was fortunately still consistent appetite for restaurant-eating in Port Alfred since there is a large retired community, who have been less economically affected by the pandemic.

A portion of that community were still having a whale of a time when we got back to Wiltshire Cottage. The bookclub had become a lot more audible and we caught snatches of the conversation and intermittent roars of laughter from the gents at the pub. 

With a plane to catch the next morning, we snuck into our cottage and popped on an episode of The Crown rather than getting tangled in the raging nightlife in our back yard.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 3: Grahamstown & Colchester

GRAHAMSTOWN & COLCHESTER
30 Nov - 02 Dec 2020

Leaving Bathurst we travelled along R67 for a quick stop-in at Grahamstown en route to Colchester, where we'd be staying for the next couple of nights. It was just a short hop down the road and held the promise of lunch at the end of the journey.

Pulling into town, we paused at the 1820 Settlers Monuments, which we were expecting to be a single statue but turned out to be a conference centre with a few statues, a small locked-up fort, a sundial and a very solid lay-of-the-land viewpoint for the town below.

Leaving the monument, we drove down and parked outside one of the many red brick buildings we assumed to be part of the Rhodes University campus, intending to explore the town on foot. It appeared that most of the campus was locked up with occasional signage stating the obvious, 2020 measures in place. 

We walked down High Street, noting the contrast of the elegant brocaded buildings with the modern street level experience, the usual collection of brands every town has (no matter the size) and how relatively easily reversible the neglect could be, to restore some of the town's lost charm. 

When we'd asked a Grahamstown local we happened to meet in the Pig and Whistle in Bathurst the night before what he recommended for our sightseeing, he'd responded enthusiastically that his hometown highlight is the new curry den. On our loop back up New Street we spotted the very same. The Curry House. Large as life and definitely, by the smells of things, worth a try.

We ordered a pair of bunny chows with a giant samoosa to start and since Covid rules prevented the eatery from seating customers, we walked back to get the car, thinking we would drive to the Botanical Gardens and have a picnic of sorts.

Obviously, it turned out that the Botanical Gardens were right by where we'd parked the car so we drove to get our food and then back again (probably no more than a kilometre or two roundtrip). 

Botanical Garden is a bit of an oversell of a name - lest it create mental images of rollong manicured lawns or structured flowerbeds - but let's say that 'lunch in the park' was a success.

We ticked off the last sight on the list, conveniently (and coincidentally) next door to where we were. The old Grahamstown Prison which now serves as a cafe and bakery. With only a handful of cells, the little prison has been delightfully converted with a themed private dining room in each of the cells, several tables in the open courtyard that served as an open exercise area for the inmates and the kitchen and (self-)service area in what was the guard house. Very quaint. And worth a visit for a meal from what we saw on display.

Having whipped around Grahamstown quicker than expected, Christian suggested that we overshoot our day's destination to pay a visit to Port Elizabeth for a stroll along the promenade and an early sundowner.

Less than half an hour added onto our journey, it was a splendid idea and we were soon wandering along the beachfront in PE, with the bright sunshine balancing the chilly bluster for which the Windy City is famous.

Chris had spent some time in PE for work so was able to give a vague lay of the land and point out some landmarks. A lovely little big city indeed. Hard to believe we hadn't visited before.

We rounded the tour with a quick toot at Barney's beach bar, which was already buzzing with patrons even though it was mid-Monday afternoon.

Back in the car we retraced our footsteps to our next home, in Colchester. We'd been attracted to this sleepy little town since 2020 and it's pandemic had robbed us of our plans to visit Colchester in the UK for a wedding in July.
We were wowed by our accommodation; a brand spanking new, immaculate and tastefully decorated studio that had the best of everything you'd expect - and all sorts of things you wouldn't (like a sandwich press, a humidifier, an electric beater, Netflix etc etc). We also had a private walled garden (good for keeping the wind out) and a pretty little plunge pool.

We took a wander around our neighbourhood, knowing from the map on the booking site that we were on the Sundays River but not much more than that. Houses were built far from the riverbank with open pedestrian access so we were able to walk alongside the wide, sparkling waters that stretched and slowly ambled from the nature reserve on the right to the sea on the left. 

Being in a secured estate our explore was hampered by the electric fence perimeter, which was our cue to get the car and take a drive to view the other wildlife, at the local pub, Grunter's. 

It was very quiet (it was a Monday evening after all) but we were pleased with our surf n turf dinner and happy to call an early night since we had an early morning ahead of us.

Our early morning was to get into the Addo National Park while it was still cool enough to favour good animal sightings. With our nest literally across the road from the Southern entrance of the Park, we'd saved ourselves any additional early rising or unneeded car time. 

We were able to fashion a modest breakfast with our patchwork of supplies and the amply equipped kitchen and rolled into the park, determined that we wouldn't leave until we saw at least an elephant.

The park issues a map with a checklist of animals each with a points allocation. Christian was thrilled when the first sighting for the day was his; a Dungbeetle scoring him 8 points. Things got tense when he then spotted zebra for an additional point. But, turning a bend that saw the brush give way to an open veld, I evened the scoreboard with not one but two elephants!

From there it was a landslide; kudo, elephants, eland, zebra, elephants, warthogs, elephants, buffalo, camels. It's a very rewarding game drive experience, getting saturation point of sightings within a couple of hours!

Smug from a very successful morning in the park, we retired to our studio where we enjoyed the rest of the day lounging around, able to relax because there was nothing else unseen or undone in this sleepy little enclave. What a great day.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 2: Bathurst

BATHURST
29 Nov

We dropped our friends off at East London Airport and drove along the coast as far as Port Alfred, where we turned inland for the 10 minute stretch to Bathurst. We had chosen to stay at the Historic Pig & Whistle Inn because it houses the longest running pub in South Africa and puts on a legendary Sunday roast.

Cutting it very fine for the kitchen's published 3pm close, we called ahead to secure our roast (lamb) dinners and made it in the nick of time, pulling into a parking bay in front of the hotel with mere minutes to spare. There were a few tables of diners and drinkers being entertained by a live band positioned underneath the hotel's sign on the wide curb.

The chefs had waited to plate for us, so we were served fresh piping-hot roasted goodness smothered in a rich gravy - and for that moment all was right with the world!

With a full belly we were newly excited to explore our surrounds, so without bothering to complete check-in or unpack the car we embarked on a self-guided walking tour of town. 

Established in 1820, it's hard to believe this peaceful little village on the banks of the Kowie River had such a turbulent start.

Established on the frontier, it was an area of fierce conflict between settlers moving northwards and African pastoralists and refugees from the Mfecane moving southwards.

The settlement was named after the secretary of State for the colonies at the time, a Lord Henry Bathurst, and was intended to be the administrative capital of the Albany Settler Country, but that was moved to Grahamstown because of its superior military position.

Bathurst is now renowned for its quaint and old architecture, counting among the visible relics - all on our short self-guided walking tour of the town centre - the oldest unaltered Anglican church building in South Africa (St John's), the oldest functioning primary school and the oldest continuously licenced pub in the country, housed in the historic Pig and Whistle Inn, which is where we chosen to stay for the night.

The inn building was originally built as the Bathurst Forge in 1821 but converted into a hotel in 1831 and has housed endless guests in its first floor 10 rooms, with countless more guests "having a swig at the pig" or enjoying the traditional Sunday roast lunch as we had. 

On finally checking in - a process managed by a local patron from the bar in the tender's absence - we were escorted to Room 8, a corner room which overlooked the town's main crossroad, and we were delighted with the hardwood floors, the old-world 4-poster bed and in-room basin (with the rest of the facilities shared and accessible from the landing). 

Opening our windows we could hear that the Bathurst Arms across the road was rather festive so, after having an obligatory Guinness in the Pig and Whistle (for Indexing purposes), we made our way to see what was going on. 

The pub was full to bursting, with an open mic style live music show drawing and holding the patrons. Some were more conventionally talented than others, but the small crowd cheered all gamely and sang along whenever the words were known. No doubt both the brave showmanship and the good spirits were fuelled by house beers sold in quarts.

Not particularly hungry, but spurred by the numerous mentions of the town's epic pizza place, we rounded the evening off with a pizza to share at Pickwick's seeing as it was across the road from our hotel. We could see what the fuss was about as we enjoyed our large, topping-laden cheesy nightcap.

Waking the next morning we filled in the gaps left on out on the walking tour from the previous day, with a jogging tour that would see us completing the further afield sights within an hour or so, on a wider 10km route.

First target was the Old Powder Magazine, which is the oldest building in Bathurst and was erected as a military supply shelter in advance of the establishment of the town. We headed off, thinking we knew where we were going but ended up taking a few wrong turns - easy to do when your destination doesn't have a formal address and none of the roads are marked. Nonetheless, we found it and were pleased that besides the landmark itself, the position on top of the hill offered a worthwhile panoramic view of the surrounds. 

From there we ran past town and up another hill to the Toposcope. This is a stone beacon that was built for land surveying purposes and still shows the plaques indicating which settler families from where were allocated which farms and what distance from the beacon. An open air and free experience that is a wonderful slice of history.

Running down the hill and back to the main road, we ticked the last box with a visit to the giant pineapple which, despite the rich history of this living relic of a town, is most often the first thing to be mentioned. 

Situated on Summerhill Farm, the Big Pineapple stands three stories high with a viewing deck on top and a pineapple museum inside. At 56 feet tall, it is officially the biggest pineapple in the world and was built by members of Bathurst's agricultural community in the 80s to pay homage to the prickly fruit as it had provided salvation to the farmers in the 1800s who had struggled to grow anything until they planted pineapples. 

Completing the last dash home along the main road, we washed, dressed and packed up, ready to head to Grahamstown for the next adventure.

Travelogue Eastern Cape 1: Hogsback

HOGSBACK
26-29 Nov 2020

Having last been to Hogsback for a surprise wedding - and having a truly fabulous weekend! - we jumped at the chance for a revisit with the then-bride and groom, Tim and Wendy, this time to participate in The Hobbit Trail run race. It was supposed to be in April but with 2020 doing what 2020 did, had been postponed to the last weekend in November, which magically coincided with the happy couple's 4 year wedding anniversary! 

With much excitement, we headed to OR Tambo Airport and found it to be tumbleweeds compared to its usual bustle. With a life-saving Wimpy on board (it had been a mad breakfastless panic to finish off last bits of work in the morning and Covid measures meant no catering in the air) we were ready for our next adventure.

Landing in East London, Chris secured our chariot and we were soon racing off in our Toyota Corolla, blazing trails into the mountains that would be our home for the weekend.

On Tim and Wendy's endorsement (they had stated there before) we had booked Bredon Cottage, on the Applegarth Estate. Cosy and homely, our accommodation was equal parts immaculate and welcoming. Our lovely hosts had left a bottle of red wine for our arrival and put chocolates on the pillows. We were just short a holiday dog or two to complete the picture.

Being Tim and Wendy's anniversary, it was a shoe-in to have dinner at The Edge, where they had been married. And their wedded bliss was perfectly paired with our dinner bliss over the oxtail-stuffed spuds and magnificent impala shank. 

With a fridge full of champers (from our 'grocery' shop en route) and a fireplace beckoning from our lounge, we eagerly made our way back to our cottage to enjoy our first evening in front of the fireplace, entertaining ourselves with the generous selection of retro CDs in our host's collection.

Late November and mid-summer or not, we woke to a chilly morning, with the mist rolling lazily through the valley view from our terrace. Warm enough in the sunny spots, we basked and admired the panorama as the morning became the midday.

The only thing we'd scheduled to achieve on Friday, being pre-raceday, was to take a walk to find The Big Tree, which had eluded Tim and Wendy on their previous trips. Consulting a map, it seemed an easy ask with a trail that led from Hogsback's main road (which was the dirt road at the end of our driveway).

Wanting to preserve our legs, we drove to the start of the trail and then followed the existing signage to our destination. It was a taste of what lay ahead for us as the trail was a bit muddy from the cold and wet weather and we did a fair amount of slip-sliding along the path to get to the 800 year old, 36m high tree.

Feeling we'd achieved enough for one day, we returned to our cottage to relax for a while until heading out for the evening market at The Edge.

Being cool but clear, we went out early, with time to do the twists and turns of the Labyrinth and then stare out into the sunset at the edge of the edge with the breaktaking mountains and valleys.

The 'market', it turns out, was 4 trestle tables that sold baked goods, hot chocolate, gluhwein and such, so besides buying some fudge, we were quite commercially safe. And given the opportunity to try The Edge's pizzas, which had been teasing us with the aroma of golden crisping cheese hanging in the air. Perfect carbo-loading for the sweaty Saturday that was to follow.

Tim had signed up for the 38km trail run, which was way beyond our interest or ambition. He was due to start running at 8 so Chris drove him down while Wendy and I were only rousing, with plenty of time for our very-civilised 8am start.
Soon enough though, we were lined up at the start; a very respectably socially-distanced collection of milling athletes rather than the anxious cluster that is normally champing for the gun to go off.

There really was no point in hurrying though. With the slippery course that started winding steeply downhill along the narrow and muddy trail we had taken the day before to get to The Big Tree, along rickety bridges and tip-toeing on mossy stones in trickling streams, and up the mirror-image on the other side... It was a cautious and careful balancing act more than an attempt to set any records.

Breaking out of the canopy of trees on the other side, we were welcomed by what looked like an easy dusty downhill. It didn't last long though and that downhill was matched by a very long and very steep uphill that had us puffing and panting and moving at hiking pace rather than a trail run race. The views were spectacular though and it was easy to see why this underrated race is so appreciated and evangelised by the runners who have completed it.

The last few kilometres were a bit more of a classic trail run experience, with a slightly quicker pace along paths with matted leaves that allowed for better grip and a collection of obstacles in the path that were more of a workout than a life threat.

Arriving at the finish line, we patted ourselves on the back for a job well done, coming in at 75th and 76th, which for us is a great achievement being first-time trail runners. 

The event sponsors, Merrell trail running gear, did a great job of welcoming everyone as they came in, and giving out loads of spot prizes so almost everyone got something. As they said, with formal prize-givings being forbidden under Covid restriction they had had to be a bit more creative and had actually spread the sponsorship more evenly across all the participants. Having little to compare to, the smaller field of runners suited our novice skills better and we would have had a far more pressured experience if we'd had runners pushing to get past on the narrow paths.

Tim came in several hours later, sweaty, sunburnt and caked in mud. The longer trail had included a lot more challenging bits than ours - and Tim had stopped to enjoy a dip in a waterfall pond along the way. The runners in the longer races have to carry backpacks with thermal blankets, windbreakers, food and water and all sorts of other things in case they get injured and need to sustain themselves. I can't imagine I'd have enjoyed having to do more than double the distance AND lugging a backpack!

We made our way home with intentions of refreshing ourselves and then heading out for dinner, but our view was so idyllic and the fireplace beckoning so we stayed home instead, clearing out the last of our supplies and recounting snippets of the epic day we'd had.